IN THIS BIG WONDROUS CITY OF FUN By Peter Filichia
For those of us who were around then, the wait seemed interminable.
Fifty-three years ago this month, all nineteen Broadway productions and ten road shows closed because of an Actors Equity Association strike.
On that dark June 17th day, we wondered if Broadway would ever return.
It did, on June 20.
Needless to say, considering what we’re still enduring, that three-day span now seems like a drop in the Pacific Ocean’s sixty-three million square miles. Those seventy-two hours represent all of .006% of the shutdown we’re currently suffering because of the pandemic.
The strike was one of many memories that came to mind last week when I played HOW NOW, DOW JONES for the hundredth or so time.
The Tony-nominated musical closed two days before the work stoppage began. Producer David Merrick knew a strike was imminent and couldn’t be bothered to keep alive a show that had wan future sales. (He shuttered I DO! I DO! that same night for the same reason.)
At least I DO! I DO! had been a hit. Yet you might assume that HOW NOW was a hit from its brisk cast album. Would you have ever thought that composer Elmer Bernstein who wrote this show’s perky “Step to the Rear” could possibly be the same person who penned the pulsating butch theme for the 1960 film THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN?
(How butch? In “Man,” THE FULL MONTY’s song about being uber-masculine, Bernstein’s theme is musically quoted more than once.)
HOW NOW’s lyricist was one of Broadway’s finest. True, Carolyn Leigh’s name is on only three other Broadway musicals – PETER PAN, WILDCAT and LITTLE ME – but if we’re judging on quality and not quantity, as Walter Winchell once said, “How Now, Dow Wow!”
If Leigh were writing LITTLE ME today, she’d slightly change one of her lyrics. The story has mythical Hollywood personality Belle Poitrine bragging that her memoir would be “printed by demand in Esperanto, Japanese and Braille.” That was 1962; today, she ‘d say that it could be printed ON demand.
But HOW NOW was set in 1967 and is more of a period piece than the period pieces that were playing during its run.
DARLING OF THE DAY, MAME, GEORGE M! and HELLO, DOLLY! wouldn’t play much differently today. But HOW NOW was fated to be dated. Exhibit A is that two of its characters were very worried that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would never reach 1,000.
Exhibit B: Kate (Brenda Vaccaro) and Cynthia (Marlyn Mason), two Wall Street employees, lamented about male workaholics in the jazz waltz-tinged “They Don’t Make ‘em Like That Anymore.” They believe that these guys are so career-obsessed that “Sophia Loren and Lollabrigida could walk through the door and they’d only get frigider.”
Of these two erstwhile film stars, you may know Sophia Loren, who owns two Academy Awards and was seen in a film just last year. But Lollabrigida – as in Gina – might be unknown to you. She was Loren’s equal in beauty but didn’t have as notable a career and hasn’t starred in a film in almost a quarter-century.
Exhibit C comes in the same song when Kate refers to New York as “this big so-called city of fun.” Leigh was referring to remark that then-mayor John V. Lindsay made on Jan. 1, 1966 when he assumed office and immediately had to deal with a transit strike. He said “I still think it’s a fun city,” which became an idiom for New York.
In fact, Joan Rivers even co-wrote a play called FUN CITY that was the first Broadway production to open in 1972. It stayed around for 417 fewer weeks than the 418 that the Lindsay Administration lasted.
It ended on Dec. 31, 1973. Frankly, if one judges what was playing on Broadway during those eight years, Hizzoner was right: “Fun City” is a fine description of that 1966-1973 span.
During that time, you could have seen musicals ranging from THE APPLE TREE to THE ZULU AND THE ZAYDA, from RAISIN, the first and only musical by Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan, to THE ROTHSCHILDS, the last one by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.
On the boards were such Tony-winning Best Musicals as CABARET, COMPANY, 1776, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and HALLELUJAH, BABY! as well as such Tony-nominated Best Musicals SWEET CHARITY, FOLLIES and GREASE. Two musicals that didn’t get such nominations richly deserved them: INNER CITY and ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER.
Tony-winning performances included Patricia Routledge in DARLING OF THE DAY, Hal Linden in THE ROTHSCHILDS, Cleavon Little and Melba Moore in PURLIE, Leslie Uggams for HALLELUJAH, BABY! as well as Angela Lansbury, not only in MAME but also in DEAR WORLD. And let’s not forget Pearl Bailey, who assumed the role of Dolly Levi nine days before HOW NOW began previews and received her own special Tony.
There were two terrific revivals: ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and NO, NO NANETTE. Each would have won a Best Revival of a Musical Tony had the category existed then. There were also two revisals, as the 1919 IRENE had its score augmented by new songwriters while the 1958 Oscar-winning GIGI took to the stage with new songs by its original writers: Lerner and Loewe. They even won a Best Score Tony for their troubles. (Their magnificent nine-minute piece “The Contract” may well be the main reason why.)
That subway strike that spurred Lindsay to say that NYC was “a fun city” was long solved by April, 1968, when HAIR’s song “Initials” told us that “LBJ took the IRT.”
LBJ stood for Lyndon Baines Johnson, the thirty-sixth POTUS. And if you’re a longtime New York subway rider, you’ll remember that The Seventh Avenue Line – meaning the 1, 2, and 3 trains – was once called Interborough Rapid Transit – or IRT for short.
(I once took the IRT to the IRT. Confused? In the late seventies, a very fine theater company called itself Impossible Ragtime Theatre: IRT for short. Had the theater company survived, it might have done RAGTIME, but that turned out to be impossible for Impossible Ragtime Theatre.)
For a month in 1971 you could have seen 70, GIRLS, 70 at the Broadhurst. This musical about senior citizens has two period references worth referencing. In “You and I,” the seventysomethings are sitting in front of a broken TV and imagining what they might be seeing if the damn thing were working. One “viewer” sings “Oh, my God! It’s Tiny Tim!”
No, it’s not Christmastime and we’re not talking Dickens. But in the late sixties, a falsetto-voiced scraggly-haired singer born Herbert Butros Khaury (and previously known as Larry Love, the Singing Canary) was suddenly showing up on TV variety shows. This newly named Tiny Tim had a novelty hit with a three-decade-old song “Tiptoe through the Tulips” which he sang while accompanying himself on a ukulele. Right around the time of the aforementioned Broadway strike, it reached Number Seventeen on the charts.
(Harry Potter fans know the song because Vernon Dursley likes to hum it.)
70, GIRLS, 70’s “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” has a reference to The Belmore Cafeteria, a 28th Street and Park Avenue South eatery. Owner Phil Siegel insisted that it was “New York’s Most Fabulous Restaurant,” and whether it was or wasn’t, 5,000 customers each weekday must have thought it was pretty good. Alas, it closed in 1981 to make way for – what else? – condominiums. But you can still see it in TAXI DRIVER, when Robert DeNiro and Peter Boyle have a chat there.
Our final period reference comes in GREASE, which opened twenty-two months before the Lindsay Administration ended. More importantly, it stayed around for seventy-six more months afterward, setting the long-run record for Broadway musicals.
“It’s Raining on Prom Night” has Sandy Dumbrowski moaning that “Instead of a night full of romance supreme, all I got was a runny nose and Asiatic flu.”
While of course that killer disease was no joke when it hit in 1958, these days it seems almost benign. As for us right now, we’re looking forward to the day when our current pandemic is an official period reference, too. Would that it could go on a long, long strike.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.